Why It Matters

Recognize context and perspective in art

Introduction

Contexts are the circumstances and background that form the setting for any kind of communication, including art, and the interpretation of its meaning(s). All artworks exist in multiple contexts. Considering different contexts can form analytical lenses through which to view and interpret an artwork.

An example of the first and most basic level of context is the time and place an artwork was created. A less discussed, but equally important, context is how or where we encounter an artwork, and how that affects our interpretation. This is part of the viewer context. Consider this photograph, The Falling Soldier, by highly regarded documentary photographer Robert Capa.

From its first release it was provocative, because it was assumed to be the first photograph of someone being shot at the moment of the bullet’s impact and the moment also, possibly, of death. Its authenticity continues to be hotly debated. When the photo was first seen in the European magazine Vu in 1936, it was accompanied by other photographs depicting the suffering of people during the Spanish Civil War. However, when LIFE magazine reprinted it in 1937 for an American audience, it was part of a two-page magazine spread adjacent to an ad for Vitalis, a men’s hair product. How might this odd juxtaposition have affected the way American audiences interpreted the photo’s meaning compared with their European counterparts?

In this module you’ll learn more about context and perspective and their role in the interpretation of art.